I.F. Stone, The Watchdog
I.F. Stone, The Watchdog
I. F. Stone and his wife, Esther, at the Waldorf-Astoria in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s.By PAUL BERMAN, New York Times, October 1, 2006Does the memory of the independent-minded, hearing-impaired, liberally leftist, reliably humorous, ever quizzical and wonderfully prolific journalist I. F. Stone have anything to offer to us today? Myra MacPherson has written a biography under the Stone-quoting title All Governments Lie, in order to demonstrate that Stone and his journalistic achievements do have something to offer, and Karl Weber and the publisher Peter Osnos have brought out an anthology of 65 articles called The Best of I. F. Stone in order to demonstrate that MacPherson is right. And it is easy to see what the biographer and the anthologists have in mind.
Stone, born in Philadelphia in 1907, came of age in the 1920’s and 30’s writing for the daily newspapers of New Jersey and Philadelphia, then moved on to The New York Post in its golden age of liberal glory and to still other newspapers like the now-forgotten P.M., a much-read daily on the liberal left in its time. But in the end, he secured his place in the history of journalism by publishing his own newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 to 1971, followed by a steady drizzle of still more writings, until his death in 1989, for The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Village Voice and a few other journals. He wrote easily and in a personable tone, as if confiding thoughts to his fondest friends. And in this fashion, he offered insights into a three-cornered reality that consisted of
A) American foreign policy; B) the government’s justification for American foreign policy; and C) the mainstream press’s method of reporting A and B. He became something of a legend during the Vietnam War because, week after week, he succeeded in revealing that America’s policy was disastrous; the justifications, mendacious; and the press, deluded.
He was especially shrewd at explaining how the government, by playing to the vanity of individual journalists, was able to manipulate the news. MacPherson, who used to work at The Washington Post (and has written a book on the Vietnam War), quotes him saying, “Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk” — which may not be true of every reporter who ever lived, but does point to a recognizable human frailty.
And the relevance to our own time is hard to escape, given our own recent experiences with disastrous policies, official mendacities and a sometimes error-prone and manipulated press. To read Stone’s description of clueless Americans wandering around Saigon in 1966, reprinted in “The Best of I. F. Stone,” is to plunge into glum reflections on the Green Zone of Baghdad, 40 years later.
But Stone’s career does have its oddities, and, by unhappy coincidence, one of those oddities bears on that same vexed question of journalism and lunch. MacPherson reminds us that in 1992, three years after Stone’s death, a high officer of the former Soviet Union’s former spy service, the K.G.B., revealed that from time to time in the 1960’s, Stone did accept luncheon invitations, and the K.G.B. picked up the tab. The K.G.B. agent was Oleg Kalugin, and, in recalling those lunches, he left the impression that Stone might have been a Soviet operative. Stone’s enemies in the United States, in a delirium of joy, responded to Kalugin’s remarks by leveling some very serious posthumous accusations at Stone, and they have kept on doing so, as anyone could have predicted.
Eventually, however, Kalugin clarified his remarks. MacPherson has tracked him down to confirm his clarifications, and she concludes emphatically that Stone was not, in fact, a Soviet spy, nor did Kalugin ever mean to suggest otherwise. MacPherson is scathing about the accusations. The attacks, “as tawdry as they are untruthful,” she writes, have been made by those with “a vested interest in portraying Stone as a paid Kremlin stooge because he remains an icon to those who despise all that the far right espoused.” She goes on in this irate vein — which would be fair enough, except that carried away perhaps by her own polemical fury, she seems not to notice that in her ardor to rescue Stone from his enemies, she has yanked the rope a little too firmly and has accidentally hanged the man.
MacPherson informs us that Kalugin, having specified that Stone was never on the Soviet payroll, described Stone as a “fellow traveler” — meaning a friendly supporter of the Soviet cause, though not a disciplined member of any Communist organization. Kalugin explained (in words no admirer of I. F. Stone will want to read) that Stone “began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me, based entirely on his view of the world.” Stone was “willing to perform tasks.” He would “find out what the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue.”
MacPherson beams a benign light on those remarks. She observes that, first, there is a world of difference between merely cooperating with the K.G.B. and actively serving as an espionage agent; and, second, any proper journalist would leap at the opportunity to chat with well-connected functionaries of a foreign power; and, third, many a Washington big shot has conducted back-channel conversations with foreign governments. And so forth, one exculpatory point after another, each of which seems reasonable enough, except that, when you add them up, the sundry points seem to have missed the point. Stone, after all, has been extolled as a god, or, at least, an inspiring model for the journalists of today, and while it is good to distinguish between cooperation and espionage, and excellent to learn that Stone sought out acquaintances in many a dark corner, something about his willingness “to perform tasks” as part of his longtime “cooperation with Soviet intelligence” is bound to make us wonder, What on earth was that about?
MacPherson acknowledges that sometimes a slant or bias did creep into Stone’s journalism — a “double standard,” as she describes it, which tended to favor the Soviet Union and, in later years, other left-wing dictatorships. Osnos, the publisher of “The Best of I. F. Stone,” worked for Stone as an assistant in the 1960’s and boasts of this in his introduction; and Weber, a freelance writer who edited the anthology, makes plain that he, too, stands solidly in Stone’s corner. Yet even their book sometimes demonstrates, if only inadvertently, the slant or bias in his work — for instance, his commentary on the death of Stalin in 1953, with its ringing homage: “Magnanimous salute was called for on such an occasion.” For that matter, even Stone’s Vietnam journalism, as presented both in MacPherson’s biography and in the anthology, looks only halfway prescient today. Stone foresaw that America would lose the war, and he was admirably shrewd about this. But, from reading his articles, you would never have guessed what the consequences of Communism’s victory would be — the forced labor camps, the flight of the boat people into the South China Sea, the massacre of huge portions of the population of Cambodia and so forth: topics on which he was not so prescient.
MacPherson, in her attempt to explain these several peculiarities, paints the political landscape in which Stone came of age, and she puts a lot of emphasis on the anti-Semitism and general horribleness of the old Russian empire of the czars, which Stone’s immigrant parents remembered, and on the scary nature of sundry right-wing movements in the United States during the 1920’s and 30’s — all of which, the Old World Jewish memories mixed with the New World observations, prepared the young Stone to look with genuine and realistic fear on the rise of European fascism. He was never any kind of Communist, not even in a freelance, unaffiliated way, except for a fleeting and probably whimsical moment at the start of the Great Depression. His political principles were insistently liberal, and when he was seized by a more radical or utopian impulse, he liked to invoke the lofty ideals of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist. But he did come to regard Communists and the Soviet Union as fascism’s most reliable enemies, therefore deserving of special sympathy. That is MacPherson’s explanation. A lot of people in the 1930’s and 40’s would have made the same argument and would have added, besides, that Communism was progressive, even if it wasn’t perfect. But something must be missing from this explanation.
The organized left was pretty big in New York and elsewhere in the United States in those years, but the largest and most powerful institutions of the left, far from being Communist, were some of the Jewish social democratic trade unions and the Yiddish-language Forward and a few other journals, nestled on what might be described as the more conservative or social democratic wing of the socialist movement; and the people who ran those social democratic organizations were, from the very start, more consistently hostile to fascism than America’s Communists ever managed to be, even if the Communists were noisier. But those same social democrats who stood up against fascism also managed to be remarkably well informed and undeluded about the realities of Soviet life. This was chiefly because American social democrats paid respectful attention to their own oppressed comrades from Russia, the Mensheviks, some of whom fled into American exile with hair-raising reports about Bolshevism and its deeds. If only Stone had likewise listened to those Menshevik stories, he might have learned a thing or two. For that matter, he could have listened to the Russian anarchists in exile, the followers of Kropotkin, who, having fled the Soviet Union, struck up an alliance with the American social democrats and were likewise eloquent about Communist repression. But he didn’t listen, or rather, he listened only for what he wanted to hear. And why was that?
Very likely it was because, in his own, unorganized, pro-Communist wing of the left, the fashion was to demonize and dismiss the Mensheviks as ghastly reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries, embittered to the point of insanity by their political failure in Russia. An example of this sort of demonizing crops up in an article of Stone’s from as late as 1951, reprinted in “The Best of I. F. Stone,” in which he allows himself to sneer a bit at someone described as “a bitterly anti-Communist writer, who himself advocates American aid to counterrevolutionary movements within the Soviet Union.” And yet this person, who sounds frightfully right wing, practically czarist, in Stone’s description, was in fact a scion of the Mensheviks in America, Boris Shub, who advocated American aid to the struggling and forlorn democrats of the Soviet Union — aid to the very kinds of people, the champions of human rights and labor unions, who eventually did overthrow Communism. It depresses me to see this sort of sneering in Stone’s journalism — it reminds me of the ways in which liberal exiles from countries like Iraq and Iran, the Mensheviks of our own time, are sneered at today as tools of imperialism and people without principles.
From time to time, though, Stone alternated his defenses of Communism with criticisms, and some of these were admirably sharp. He wrote a ferocious denunciation of Stalin in 1956, which you can likewise find in “The Best of I. F. Stone,” a very fine piece, even if he did follow it up in the years to come by putting his faith in still other Communist megalomaniacs — in Fidel Castro at the start of the Cuban revolution (until Stone recognized with dismay that Castro, too, was a tyrant), and in Ho Chi Minh. Anyway, in his last years, Stone seemed to learn from these repeated mistakes. One of the bravest things he ever did was to sign an open letter in 1979 written by Joan Baez, protesting the “totalitarian” policies of the Vietnamese Communists. For some reason, MacPherson fails to mention this letter, nor can you find a mention of it in an earlier and still valuable biography of Stone by Robert C. Cottrell, “Izzy,” which came out in 1992. But that letter has always seemed to me rather impressive. Signing it was brave because Stone had to know that a good many of his own admirers on the pro-Communist side of the American left were going to denounce the letter (which they did with a full-page ad in The New York Times). But signing the letter was brave mostly because, by acknowledging the repressive nature of Vietnamese Communism, Stone risked making some of his own journalism from the war look, in retrospect, less than astute. At minimum, he made himself look inconsistent. But then inconsistency may have been what made him great.
It’s not easy to explain a political personality like I. F. Stone’s. The 20th century produced a brilliant literature of fanaticism — a literature by and about hard-line Communists who became maniacs of their own dogmas and then turned the other way, in some cases to become authentic liberals, in other cases to become maniacs of anti-Communism. But a literature that adequately accounts for the people who never did become fanatics, a literature about the non-maniacs, about the people who remained liberals at heart yet, even so, kept applauding one left-wing tyranny after another — a convincing and thorough literature about these people is harder to find. MacPherson’s biography, for all its landscape-painting of the left-wing past, seems to me not up to the task (and, in any case, the book contains too many small errors of fact: her assertion that Kropotkin abandoned pacifism only during his old age in World War I, when, in reality, the young Kropotkin was craftily ambiguous about revolutionary violence; her assertion that Communists in 1933 ran the garment workers’ union in New York, which in fact was run by the hardest of hard-line social democrats; her assertion that a famous anti-totalitarian manifesto in New York in 1939 was signed by many Trotskyists, when the manifesto was in fact produced and dominated by Sidney Hook’s non-Trotskyist circle of social democrats and liberal academics — and so on). I can think of only one genuinely great biography of a fellow traveler written in our own anti-totalitarian age, though the biography happens to be of such a person in France and not in America. This book is Bernard-Henri Lévy’s “Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century,” which came out in the United States in 2003 and attracted very little attention.
To cite a book on Sartre in connection to Stone might seem a stretch, but these two men, it seems to me, lived parallel lives — Stone, the political journalist who dabbled in philosophy (“The Trial of Socrates” was his old-age best-seller) and published his own magazine; and Sartre, the philosopher who dabbled in political journalism and likewise published his own magazine. The two men were of the same generation, and had the same political instincts. Stone boasted of his anarchist impulses, and so did Sartre; and at the height of the cold war, neither man was thereby inhibited from siding with the Stalinists. Stone read Sartre and cited him with admiration — notably on the topic of Israel and the Arabs. Sartre, for his part, published Stone’s articles in France. Stone and his family lived in France for a short while during the early 1950’s, and Sartre paid him a visit, which was a singular honor. And in Lévy’s book I think we can find the explanation for this kind of political personality.
Sartre, as Lévy describes him, was, in his own extremely idiosyncratic fashion, a totalitarian — someone who got swept up in the craziness of the 20th century because he wanted to subsume himself into a mass movement, and who therefore ended up taking a sort of masochistic pleasure in distorting his own best thoughts and intuitions. But Sartre was, at the same time, not a totalitarian. Sartre was a lover of freedom, who felt a positive aversion to the idea of submitting his own thoughts to anyone else at all. Sartre was a paradox. He did not add up, and that was his attraction. This has got to be the explanation for Stone as well. Those years of doing favors for the K.G.B. do suggest that Stone, too, was, in his own fashion, willy-nilly a totalitarian — at least, sometimes. He wrote journalism he knew to be untrue. That was why, in a rueful moment, he spoke about “the morass into which one wanders when one begins to withhold the truth.”
But Stone was also not a totalitarian. He was a lover of freedom. A part of him always rebelled against the culture of mendacity he helped to foster in his own corner of the American left. He was a paradox. He did not add up. In our own hair-raising era today, a good many people naturally want to rummage through the past in a search for heroes, and some people will keenly hope that in I. F. Stone they have found their man. His charming and humorous prose style, his amiable personality on the page, his incontestable bravery, the quality in him that, in spite of everything, was never petty or contemptible — all this is hugely attractive, or would be, if only you could separate out the other aspects. “All governments lie,” Stone’s maxim, ought to be plastered across every journalist’s desk. But the lesson Stone can offer us today is, I would say, mostly a reminder that we will have to rise to our own occasion, and not expect heroes from the past to guide our faltering steps. A useful reminder, unfortunately. In any case, a truth.
Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of “Power and the Idealists” and the editor of the forthcoming “Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems.”